Brewing Your Own Beer

Would you like a tall, cold, professional-quality brew at a 50% discount? You can have one, if you start brewing your own beer.

| December/January 1994

Brewing your own beer, rather than participating in the collective lunacy of shelling out $20 or $30 a case for a product of often questionable quality, has long been a favorite for MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers. Basic brewing procedures have been illustrated in both the January/February 1988 and the October/November 1992 issues, much to the pleasure of both the cost-conscious as well as those who just want to make the most delicious beer they've ever tasted. George Hummel, a member of an old Philadelphia brewing family as well as a nationally recognized beer judge and award-winning brew master at Home Sweet Homebrew in Philadelphia, PA, takes our novice brewers one step further, offering advice on all-grain recipes and a cheat sheet on imitating your favorite store-bought brands. 

Ever since the Mayflower dropped its anchor at Plymouth Rock because their beer supplies had run low, the tradition of homebrewing and tavern brewing has played an indispensable role in early American history. Our Founding Fathers were brewers, including Washington, Jefferson, and Sam Adams. In fact, most of the debates by the Continental Congress took place not in Independence Hall but at City Tavern in Philadelphia, over a tankard of ale or porter.

Prior to the 1800s, all beers produced were ales (beers that ferment at room temperature)—until it was discovered in Northern Europe that certain yeast strains preferred a colder temperature. These cold-fermenting yeasts produced a clearer beer with a clean, dry taste. This fermentation took longer and these beers became known as "lagers" (literally, to store ). Lager beers were seasonal beers, produced only in the winter months until refrigeration was invented. With the advent of industrial cooling, year-round lager production became possible. Immigrants from Northern Europe opened many of these lager breweries. Hundreds of small local breweries sprang up in cities with large immigrant populations, brewing good, fresh beer.

In 1919, catastrophe struck. With the stroke of a pen the Volstead Act made Prohibition the law of the land. Breweries throughout the country went belly-up. American brewing went underground. Horrible-tasting brews were produced using inferior ingredients and equipment (this subsequently lent a bad name to home-brewed beers). Concern during these dark days of brewing was not for the taste or quality of the beer but rather how good the buzz was. At the close of Prohibition, our remaining breweries began to produce beers again, but their numbers had been greatly reduced by years of inactivity. Larger and larger breweries swallowed up smaller regional establishments, producing beer with less and less character but progressively higher profit margins. Dealing with fiscally hard times, brewers decided to cut back on the main ingredients. They assumed that after years of vile home brews, no one would notice a more watered down taste. The brewers found themselves correct in their assumption. Further cutbacks in ingredients occurred with rationing during the Second World War. At the end of conservation, the brewers left the recipes at the wartime levels. Again they correctly assumed that no one would notice that their beer was tasting more like water.

By the 1970s the onslaught of light beers began. Not only were the beers more watered down, but advertising campaigns extolled how products tasted less and less like beer. "No aftertaste!" was often exclaimed. "No taste at all" would be more appropriate. During the '80s and '90s, various clear beer and beerlike beverages, tasting less and less like beer, hit the market. As P.T. Barnum once said, "No one ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American public:"

At the same time, a revolution occurred with two forms of craft brewing. Small breweries began to produce quality beers for a small appreciative audience of beer lovers. At this point, microbrewing has been experiencing a 40 percent annual growth. Also, the megabrewers have found that their sales have gone flat. Subsequently, many of the megabrewers have introduced beers that are styled after microbrews. At the same time that microbrewers began to blossom, brewing took yet a further retrostep and people began, once again, to home brew. But "premium" or not, commercial beers often contain chemical additives and the consumer is kept in the dark as to their presence due to antiquated labeling laws. Besides the use of chemical additives, megabrews are loaded with cheap adjunct grains. Microbrews and imports offer improved taste but at a high price. These beers are often mishandled, often stale (since they are expensive, they often don't move as quickly through the distribution system), and sometimes arrive to your house in poor condition. There's nothing worse than laying down $30 for a case of beer only to find it has spoiled. With a little practice, you can produce a beer as good and eventually better than beers produced by commercial brewers.

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